Once in a while, a shoe washes up on the shore, somewhere on the Pacific coast. Once in a long while, the shoe isn’t empty. The ocean is home to uncounted secrets, a few that we may not want revealed.
First appearing in the Dead Bait horror anthology in 2009, “Searching for the Sea Monster” is a science fiction story with a light speculative touch, but on the darker side of the spectrum.
Publisher: Cyborg Bunny Press
I hate seaweed. Slimy, grasping, puke green ropes reaching out of the darkness to bind you, hold you gently bobbing in place to wait for the end. I wonder what the seaweed gets out of it. Fertilizer, maybe? Not that there’s ever much left behind. All I’ve ever found are a few shards of bone lying in the sand and I don’t see how that would be enough for cooperation.
Maybe I’m crazy, but does that make me wrong? There’s something about this stretch of coast, something that hates, something that strikes whenever we’re not looking. Only I am looking and it doesn’t seem to mind, or maybe it doesn’t care.
If you look at the numbers, really look, the incidence of missing people here is about three times the coastal average, accounting for population density. There’s something here that doesn’t belong.READ MORE
The seaweed is the key. Any time I get close to a big stand, some bit of it twitches against the current, ready to reach out and take whatever it can, waiting for the right moment, the right command. If I can just catch it in the act, I might be a step closer. Maybe I am crazy, but I will find out what's wrong here.
Thursday morning clouds roil across the sky and the wind they ride on pushes waves in fast. Too cold for swimming, but a surfer might find entertainment on the beach today. I haven't seen any yet, just shore birds, sand crabs, and stranded jellyfish.
But something smells below the cedar and salt water. It's faint, too subtle for me to know if it's something coming or something left behind, but it draws me to the ripple of sand where the strongest waves reach up from the ocean. I stand there, staring out into the water, and search the shallows through crash and foam for some sign of why I’m here.
A surge of cold water rushes over my boots reaching all the way up to my ankles and I look down to see the receding wave leave something behind. Wrapped in a few light strands of seaweed, an expensive running shoe sits off kilter in the sand. The next wave licks the toes of my left boot and the one after lacks the will to get even that far. It takes three more before I can do more than stare at the shoe. Some feeling, some subconscious vibration makes me suspicious, unwilling to take the gift.
But it’s not something I can refuse. Holding my breath, I bend over and grab the shoe, expecting to feel something, but it just feels like a wet running shoe. The water hasn’t started to leach away any of the bright colours yet so it can’t have been in the ocean for more than a couple of days.
I lift it almost to eye level. Something tumbles inside, not making any noise but I feel the bounces. I tilt the shoe toward me and shake it. Several more bounces bring the unknown thing to the heel.
It’s a toe.
Not a big toe or a little toe, but one of the ones in between, drained of fluid and bleached white by the salt. The real deal, it’s definitely a human toe. Male or female? Morbid curiosity. It’s a man’s shoe, I think. Whoever it belonged to, for me it’s a gift from the sea or a taunt from my quarry.
More disturbing, it’s probably both.
It’s a tough decision to call the police. They’ll spend the whole day, at least, sending in divers to look for more body parts or clues, and generally muddying the waters – pun intended. But someone died. If the police can find anything to narrow down who it might have been, that’s as important as my search could be. More important to the dead man’s family, if he had one.
I’m not brave enough to dive at night so Friday morning comes before I’m back at the beach. The sun nearly reaches zenith before the wetsuit shows my bulging middle to the world. Flippers and mask secure, I try to line up exactly where the shoe washed ashore and wade into the gentle surf.
When I reach the point were the waves push up against the bottom of my mask, I stop and let the ocean hold me there. It gives me a primitive feeling in the pit of my stomach, imagining what it must have been like for my very remote ancestors to poke up out of the water and see the alien world above. Turning around, it’s an ever-stronger feeling as the waves wash up and down showing me varying amounts of beach and tree.
Am I hunting a more primitive mind? Is that why I do this? I think it must be, but I can’t assume it’s stupid. Most of Earth’s predators have primitive minds which doesn’t prevent them from being very good at what they do. My quarry is no exception or someone would have found it before me.
Another step and my eyes dip under the water. One more and I feel a wave wash over my head. It’s bright here and I almost hope I won’t get to the warm, watery twilight. If there’s nothing to find I can enjoy a nice dive in the light. But it’s wishful thinking. There’s no doubt in my mind that I’ll range out into the murky depths. Yesterday I thought the killer didn’t care if anyone searched for it, or just wasn’t aware. The shoe proved at least one of those false.
I lean forward and start kicking, trying to keep myself straight. Waves try to travel in straight lines but nature doesn’t usually like things so simple. Every tiny thing changes the shape of the wave just a little, driving the currents. But a line is as good, or better, than a random search even if it leads out into the kelp forest.
I find a small stand of seaweed in less than fifteen feet of water. It’s the thick, leafy kind and the police divers spent time here yesterday. They didn’t leave any footprints – the sand here shows the same current ripples – but I can see a lot more broken or torn strands than there should be. A couple of intact vines twitch when I get close, so quick I barely see it, but it’s enough to tell me I’m being watched.
The patch is small enough I can see through to the other side, but I still feel nervous slipping between the strands. They brush across my body, almost but not quite clinging to the wetsuit with just enough feeling to remind me what it’s like on bare skin. My heart starts to beat a little harder, but I swim through into deeper water, deep enough I can see where the darkness begins.
Well, not really, but even as deep as I am, light doesn’t travel far before the ocean swallows every photon. It’s one thing to be fifteen feet under the surface and something else again to look through ten times as much water at that depth. But I still can’t shake the belief that this would be easier a few hundred miles to the south. And warmer.
“Searching for the Sea Monster” first appearing in the Severed Press anthology Dead Bait in 2009.